Getting your hands on data with mobile analytics

Mobile touchscreen interfaces, when designed correctly, provide a more intimate relationship with business data. Donald Farmer of Qlik offers his take on three key UI design principles

Year after year, organizations cite business intelligence and analytics as top investment priorities, but they're seldom satisfied with the results. In part that's because traditional solutions require a handoff to experts who know how to query warehouses full of data -- and dutifully return static reports that reveal somewhat less than anticipated.

That's why we've seen a new wave of tools to help business users visualize data and interact with it in real time. In this week's New Tech Forum, Donald Farmer, vice president of innovation and design at the data discovery firm Qlik, explains how mobile analytics opens a whole new way of interacting with critical business data. -- Paul Venezia

Mobile analytics is not reporting

When you consider mobile business intelligence, whether for sales teams on the road, executives visiting remote offices, or retail managers walking around their own store, bear in mind one caveat: Mobile reporting alone is not good enough. You need analytic tools, too.

Why? And why particularly for mobile BI?

On the move we encounter new problems and scenarios that don't easily fit the static view of the world that a report addresses. After all, you're probably mobile in the first place to learn what you can't see from the static view back at the office.

Mobile analytics requires a lot more than traditional BI squeezed into a skinny form factor. The whole experience of mobile analysis can be quite different, in fact, and may even change the way you work with data comfortably behind the desk.

Let's look at three basic aspects of mobile analytics and their rather surprising implications:

1. To touch is to explore

For any application, the touch interface stands out as a striking difference between mobile and desktop environments. In the past, vendors often attempted to crowd more and more information into an app with additional details on mouse-over hints and right-click context menus. These options simply don't exist in the same way on a mobile device. Add the need to make interactive areas large enough to touch (Apple recommends 44 by 44 pixels at least), and mobile design demands a cleaner, less crowded experience.

You will also find subtle but important differences between touching your data right there on screen and pointing and clicking with a mouse. I often say seeing is believing, but touching is trusting. Our user research shows that customers -- in the real world, not in the lab -- spend considerably longer browsing data with a touch device than in the same application on a laptop.

In one case, a firm selling retail mortgages found that locations using tablets increased their conversion rate (of consumers entering their store, then signing for a mortgage in that same visit) by 30 percent compared to stores running the same loan-modelling tool on a laptop. Customers spent longer with the touch app and felt more comfortable with the offers they found and explored.

A touch interface challenges more than the user experience. It encourages a new attitude to the data: exploration, not just passive reading. You need a platform that offers more than merely static reporting.

2. Responsive design

Mobile analytics also demands responsive interface design -- your analysis must work across many devices. However, responsive layout and coding for analytics have a surprising twist: You need a new approach not only to interface design but to information design, too.

You may be familiar already with the advice of visualization experts: how to choose color ranges to reveal patterns, which chart type works best for data of particular characteristics, and (often repeated) that you should avoid pie charts like the work of the devil!

Much of this advice, excellent as it is, is predicated on a static representation of data in a predetermined format on-screen or even printed out.

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